I got some great news last week. The kind of news that – even though it doesn’t affect you directly – cheers you up for the day.
I’ll come back to that in a bit.
Two years ago, I interviewed a little girl called “Deborah” (not her real name). Deborah was seven years of age and she lived with her mother, father, brother and sister in two small, cramped rooms in a converted hotel in Glounthaune, outside Cork. A bright, funny, little kid whose accent was a lot more Cork than my own, she told me she wanted to be a lawyer when she grows up, because lawyers help people who are in trouble.
Though only seven, Deborah knew that she and her family were in trouble. I remember thinking how awful it was that any child should be worried at that age. I suppose, though, how could she not be? Before she was born, Deborah’s parents had fled political persecution in their native Nigeria. On arrival in Ireland, they applied for – and were denied – asylum.
Deborah’s entire life has been lived in Ireland’s Direct Provision system and – for as long as she has been alive – she has lived under the threat of deportation.
The application process for asylum is cumbersome and Ireland rejects nine out of every ten applicants. The obvious loophole is that rejected applicants appeal those decisions and enter a limbo which can drag on for years. In the meantime, life – or at least a despairing, half-life – goes on and babies are born on Irish soil but they don’t have the right to Irish citizenship. Lawyers and the owners of Direct Provision centres have literally made millions from a system based on human misery.
Direct Provision gives asylum-seekers bed and board and prohibits them from working. They are given €19.10 a week. Children get €9.60. We currently have 4,300 people living in Direct Provision centres. A third of those are children; 55% have been here for five years, 20% of that for seven years or more.
Parents are not allowed to cook for their children and many say they have lost their sense of independence. More distressingly, some children – crammed into close proximity with adults (and not just their parents) – are seeing things they should not see and are replicating behaviour they should not understand. In a country which seems to see unforeseen consequences as a mark of honour, we have created a system which infantilises adults and sexualises children. This is a recipe for horrors.
Direct Provision was introduced sixteen years ago as a temporary, six-month solution in a year we had 10,938 asylum applications. 2014 saw 1,448 applications.
In EU terms, Ireland has a lower than average number of asylum applications per head of population. The EU average is 3.5 per 1,000 and, between 2010 and 2014, Sweden received 24 applications per 1,000 population. According to the UN refugee agency, the UN-HCR, Ireland received 1.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 population in that same time period.
Last year, the then-government published the report of the Working Group on Direct Provision. The report had been commissioned by the then Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Áodhán Ó Riordáin, who had repeatedly said he could not stand over “the scandal of Direct Provision”.
The Department of Justice and Equality last week claimed that “91 of the (Working Group’s) recommendations have been implemented, a further 49 have been partially implemented or are in progress, and the balance remain under consideration”.
However, Caroline Reid of the Irish Refugee Council told The Irish Catholic that this is not the experience of people in Direct Provision. “They are putting a tick beside what has been implemented but there is little clarity on how it has been implemented. For people actually caught up in the system it is still very slow moving, there have been few, if any, changes to the physical living environment.”
Eugene Quinn of Jesuit Refugee Service said there is “an urgency to fully implement recommendations leading to real and qualitative changes in living conditions and supports, enabling the 4,300 people currently residing in direct provision to live with greater dignity”.
Ireland remains the only country in the EU, other than Lithuania, that does not allow asylum applicants access to the labour market at any stage during the process and, a recommendation to include a right to work for asylum seekers after nine months, has been rejected. Another recommendation – to increase the adult weekly direct provision allowance of €19.10 – was also ignored.
A year on from the publication of its report, the chairman of the Working Group, former High Court judge Bryan McMahon, urged the Government to introduce an amnesty for those long-term in direct provision, saying it would be a gesture of ‘real significance’ and a suitable tribute to the men and women of 1916. Those in direct provision are ‘hollow men and women with scooped out personalities and moving like zombies in some cases’, he said. Some, he said, are ‘dying before our eyes’.
Áodhán Ó Riordáin’s replacement, Cork East TD David Stanton, has ruled out an amnesty, saying last week that asylum-seekers will continue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Ó Riordáin – now a senator – told me he was ‘horrified’ to discover that although the draft programme for government for the current government had in it, a commitment to implement in full the recommendations of the Working Group; however, upon publication of the programme for government, that sentence had disappeared.
“Somebody somewhere – from either the political system or from within the department – had gone through the draft programme for government, found that sentence to be objectionable, and deleted it.”
I mentioned earlier that I had got some great news last week. I rang Deborah’s dad, ‘Joseph’. It had been a year since I spoke with him and when last I called, he had been despairing. Now they have been granted residency. Just from chatting to him, I came away feeling like I’d won the Lotto. Such happiness, such joy. Such gratitude. Such love for Ireland, even after all they’ve endured.
He and his family want to become Irish citizens. I hope they get their wish. I hope Deborah and her brother and sister have every success and joy in life and I hope they recover from the shabby welcome they got in the self-proclaimed land of a hundred thousand welcomes.
I hope the rest of the 4,300 people trapped in Direct Provision get to share Deborah’s overdue good fortune.
A future Taoiseach will stand in the Dáil and apologise and give a tearful speech and say we didn’t know the horror of Direct Provision.
He or she will be lying.
Direct Provision has reared a generation of children on Irish soil – children with Irish accents – in a system of misery and despair. Judge McMahon is right. It is past time we granted an amnesty to those in Direct Provision.